At 10 months old, my daughter, Melby, has flown cross-country four times, been on 18 plane rides, and only cried once. She sleeps through the night without a peep, breastfed from day one without a hitch, smiles with joyful abandon at strangers, and wears a high-rise jean short like an editorial model. Her pediatrician commented on the unique ease of examining her, and a very poised businessman on a flight once mentioned, in an approving tone that spoke to the people-pleasing teenager in me, what a "well-behaved" child she was. In short, Melby is charming, adorable, and, so far, very adaptable to whatever situation or change in circumstance that arises. She is what people regularly call a "good baby." Sometimes, I, too, am delighted by Melby's easy nature and claim that title for her; my baby is a good baby.
It's easy to get swept away in that feeling — such self-congratulation, such ease! Thank heavens I have a good baby and not one of those, I guess, bad babies, who cries and resists change and struggles to sleep or breastfeed or consume solids and doesn't like random people in her face. It is in these moments, in considering the alternative to the good baby title and personality, that I realize how absurd it is as a designation.
I know no one means harm. Quite the opposite; they feel they are telling me something wonderful, complimentary. And yet I believe the idea that my baby is "good" is insidious, because it, through negation, characterizes all the things a spirited, temperamental, sensitive, emotional, or reserved baby might be as "bad."
Melby isn't good. She also isn't bad. She's just easy. Her personality makes her minimally disruptive and readily likable. Her day-to-day operations (as they are now) mean my life is pretty easy all things considered. But is that who she is?
Our children are not a collection of isolated incidents, weighed on a scale of good and bad.
With extensive training as an early childhood educator, I'm familiar with the idea that caretakers should acknowledge and encourage positive behaviors and efforts in children rather than to constantly make judgements about them as a whole person. As a child, hitting a friend doesn't make you a bad kid; it just means you handled what was probably an emotional situation in an impulsive, less than constructive way. As a baby, crying constantly doesn't mean you're a bad baby; it just means you are actively trying to make sense of a new, abrasive world and tears are one of your only effective means of communication. Our children are not a collection of isolated incidents, weighed on a scale of good and bad, hopefully amassing enough "good" interactions to warrant the adjective as a permanent definition. They are complex, dynamic, growing, constantly changing full blown human beings, not so easily lumped into such useless categories.
I believe child experts, like Harvey Karp, author of Happiest Baby on the Block (which offers soothing mechanisms for newborn babies that mimic the environment of the womb), unwittingly reinforce the belief that crying is bad, feeling is bad. With books full of information on how to snuff out any seemingly negative emotion, parents become easily convinced that their crying, grunting, moaning baby is the wrong kind of baby. Something needs to be fixed. The baby has gone bad. What if, despite all your efforts, the baby keeps crying? What if the baby is just having a really, truly terrible day? Or week? Or even month? Are they bad? Should we dispose of them with the overripe avocados and moldy onions and all else gone bad?
The truth of the matter is, hearing someone cry endlessly is pretty grating.
I ride the line constantly — the line of acknowledging and affirming whatever my daughter offers, whether it be tears and frustration or babbling and abject joy, and also not totally losing my mind. It is easy to accept the joyful baby. It is not so easy to accept the tears. I've read many articles along that preach the same thing I'm asserting here — that we should allow our babies to feel. I believe, wholeheartedly, that this is true. But, as those articles often so conveniently ignore, we, as adults, also feel. And the truth of the matter is, hearing someone cry endlessly is pretty grating. At some point, your soul just feels rubbed raw, and you will do anything possible to eradicate any of those pained, frantic sounds just for a moment of peace. I understand that. I have been there many times even with my "good" baby.
Because in reality, she's a baby. She cries. She fusses. She spends sometimes entire days totally unsettled, scratching my face with her weirdly sharp nails, unhappy whether she's being carried or left alone, refusing food and milk, but also incessantly demanding both. And, as hard as those moments sometimes are, they're also good, if you will. Because that's exactly what she's supposed to be doing.
A more honest way to describe her temperament is convenient. Melby is convenient. Right now, she fits very easily into my life, exactly as it was before her. She'll sit in coffee shops and joyfully wave toys in the air, an exuberant smile on her face, garnering the appreciative attention of all those around her, while I gulp down caffeine and sugary breads, offering her only chunks of cooked carrots, which she accepts with gratitude. Someday, I presume, this will not be the case. She will scream for treats, run recklessly in circles, throw anything on the ground with which she comes into contact.
That baby will not be bad.
That baby will just be doing what she's doing at that stage — maybe testing limits, maybe grappling with an overwhelming understanding of the world around her but an inability to communicate it in response or to affect the outcome she wants.
It won't be as easy for me then. I will struggle to feel my worth as a parent, to manage the looks of disapproving passersby, to understand that where we are is right. It is human to feel such a thing.
I will remind myself, gently, that we're good. She's a good baby. I'm a good parent. Good means being where we are, being appropriately considerate of others but also realistic about each stage, giving ourselves grace. Being good is not perfection. It is not making everyone comfortable all the time. It is not being the least disruptive to every single person around us. It is just being fully where we are. Where are right now is pretty lovely. Who knows what will come next? Whatever it is, I can assure myself, honestly, that it, too, will be good.